The little girl who turned out to be the flamboyant Josephine Baker (born Freda J. McDonald on this day in 1906 in St. Louis, Missouri) grew up in abject poverty in the slums of St. Louis, rummaging for food behind Soulard Market. At 13, she left home, married briefly, and earned change singing in the streets, waiting tables and occasionally dancing with a minstrel band. Dancing across America in dinky vaudeville theaters on the T.O.B.A. ("tough on black asses") circuit, she married again briefly, and eventually caught on as a dancer, clowning in the chorus line with Sissle and Blake's Shuffle Along in New York City.
Invited to join La Revue Negre, the first African-American troupe to play Paris, in the fall of 1925, Baker took Paris by storm, setting foot on stage wearing only a few feathers tied to her waist and ankles, dancing like a stalking panther on rubbery legs and chirping a wordless tune in a soprano voice. Parisians were enthralled by her blackness and her strange, magnetic eroticism, and overnight she became a star. Baker did not disappoint her public: every new number (with Negre, and later with Folies-Bergere) was grander, with bigger entrances and more outrageous costumes, including her trademark look -- topless, with a short skirt formed of bananas.
Countless posters and magazine covers made her the most recognizable person in France; and her private life, lived in the public eye, was just as outrageous as her act. She would take her pet cheetah for walks down the Champs-Elysees, once taking it with her to the Paris Opera, where the music made it so nervous it jumped into the pit and attacked the musicians. At home she was likely to come to the door wearing only strategically-placed flowers, as she did when she once greeted a bashful young George Balanchine.
During the 1930s, Baker made two movies, recorded and toured Europe triumphantly, but when she returned to the U.S. in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936, her act bombed -- no doubt in part to prevailing racial bigotry. She was never embraced in her own country the way she was in the U.S., and in 1937, she became a French citizen. During the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, Baker worked with the Red Cross and the French resistance, and entertained Free French troops in Morocco; DeGaulle awarded her the Croix de Guerre, the Legion of Honour and the Medaille de la Resistance for her work.
After the war, she tended her estate in southwestern France, Les Milandes, which became the home of her "Rainbow Family," 12 children of different nationalities which she adopted. Her "experiment in brotherhood" nearly broke her financially, but Princess Grace of Monaco, who had admired her courage facing racial hostility in the U.S., rescued her by providing her with a villa in Monaco. Baker survived to tour during the 1950s (always opening her shows with her theme song, "J'aix Deux Amours") and to return to the U.S. in 1963 to join Martin Luther King's march on Washington. She died on April 12, 1975 in Paris.
Categories: Pop-Culture, Paris